Reconsidering the ‘First Male Breadwinner Economy’. Long-term Trends in Female Labor Force Participation in the Netherlands, c. 1600-1900


This contribution provides methods for estimating developments in women’s labor force participation (LFP) in the Netherlands, for both preindustrial and industrializing eras. It explains long-term developments in Dutch LFP and concludes that the existing image of Dutch women’s historically low participation in the labor market should be reconsidered. Contrary to what many economic historians have supposed, Dutch women’s LFP was not lower, and was perhaps even higher, than elsewhere in the pre-1800 period. As in other Western European countries, the decline of (married) Dutch women’s LFP only started in the nineteenth century, though it then probably declined faster than elsewhere. Thus, this study concludes that the Netherlands did not constitute the “first male-breadwinner economy,” as historians and economists have suggested. Scrutinizing the nineteenth-century data in more detail suggests that a complex of demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural changes resulted in this sharp decline of Dutch women’s crude activity rates.


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